Spelling in Russian is supposed to be easy, with the phonetic writing principle of one letter corresponding to one sound. But is it easy? Not really, once you go past the beginner level and start learning more sophisticated vocabulary and punctuation rules. Interestingly, there are a lot of words in Russian, borrowed from foreign languages, that foreign learners find easy to spell, and Russian natives speakers find difficult. In the Russian culture, correct spelling and punctuation is like a "visiting card" of an educated person. So being a grown up person, how do you check your spelling skills? Well, we have a special event for it!

The Total Dictation in Russia

What is The Total Dictation?

An interesting cultural event takes place throughout the Russian speaking world every April. Thousands of grown up people in many countries, regardless of their age, education and ethnic origin, write a sophisticated dictation in Russian – totally voluntarily, just to test their level of literacy in their mother tongue.

The texts are written specially by well known Russian writers, and at Moscow venues the dictation is done by celebrities. In 2013, for example, the text was written by Dina Rubina, a famous Russian writer who has lived in Israel for the last 20 years but who came to Novosibirsk University to give the dictation to a large audience. By the way, she admitted that she has no clue about the rules of the language, and that being a professional writer does not make you a philologist. This is of course true. As an extreme case, let’s remember the writer Maxim Gorky with his “creative” punctuation.

Who writes the Total Dictation

There are different and sometimes unexpected venues for the Total dictation around the world. In 2013, about 30 thousand people in 180 cities of the world participated in the event. Even cosmonauts at the space station wrote this dictation! (I wonder how they did…) The challenge is to write the text without making a single spelling mistake and not more than one mistake in punctuation (Russian punctuation is strictly regulated, unlike in English).

Guess how many succeed in doing it perfectly: about 1 per cent! Sounds like a very poor result, but considering the fact that the dictation is long and really difficult, it sounds about right. Amusingly, one of the most difficult words to spell proved to be “communism”! I am sure the result among English native speakers, if such an event were to be held in the English speaking world, would be very similar. What surprises me is that how many people volunteer to do it, taking the time and effort. I am sure they have other things to do on a Saturday afternoon, but they chose to do a dictation! It’s good to know that people still care. By the way, a preparatory free course is offered in Novosibirsk University and other schools to anyone who wished to improve their literacy before the dictation.

The peculiarities of Russian spelling

The thing about Russian spelling is that although it is supposed to be “phonetic” it is not, of course. There are all sorts of words with silent letters, foreign words with double letters, unstressed vowels that sound different from how they sound in the weak (unstressed) position, etc. So I take my hat off to the 1 per cent who did it all correctly!

The History of the Total Dictation

A bit about the history of this remarkable event: the first “Total Dictation” was held by the philologists of Novosibirsk State University in Siberia – one of the best universities in the country – in March 2004. For the first five years it was only students who took part in the event, but in 2009 a celebrity singer was invited to dictate the text, and a record number, 600 people, turned up. So the dictation became more than just a literacy test.

In 2010 other universities, schools and libraries in Novosibirsk joined the annual event. For the first time that year a well known writer, Boris Strugatsky, wrote a text specially for this dictation. Before that, texts from classical literature were used. In 2011 another famous writer, Dmitry Bykov, wrote a text, and other Russian cities decided to participate, so the event became all-Russian. In 2012 the writer Zakhar Prilepin was the author of the text, that was written by about 25 thousand people in 11 countries, so the dictation became international.

In London, the Total Dictation is written in several venues, changing from year to year. 

Interesting facts about the Total dictation:

  • The first ever text for the dictation was taken from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.
  • Some Russian writers are keen to create a text for the dictation, but the texts are strictly assessed and some are rejected.
  • The most unexpected places where the dictation has taken place are: the flight from Novisibirsk to Moscow, where the passengers wrote it at the hight of 10 thousand meters; the Russian Antarctic expedition; the crews of some ships; the Russian space station.
  • The oldest person to have written the dictation was 102 years old.

If you are interested, here is the official website of the dictation: http://totaldict.ru/

Fancy checking if you can do it? Your Russian teacher should be able to, but I wouldn’t bet on it!